Observing Climate Change in Class

UC Santa Barbara students use real climate monitoring data to study the environment

by Julie Cohen, UC Santa Barbara Public Affairs
One of the climate monitoring stations at Sedgwick Reserve. Image credit: Dar Roberts
A climate monitoring station at Sedgwick Reserve. Image credit: Julie Cohen

Climate monitoring stations take climate change beyond the anecdotal. These remote monitoring sites, which collect measurements on such data as temperature, wind speed, precipitation, fog and soil moisture offer more solid evidence of climate change.

In UC Santa Barbara’s geography department, the climate monitoring stations are essential to professors and students alike. They are used not only for teaching classes but also for a host of research projects. For example, the stations contribute to the Innovative Datasets for Environmental Analysis by Students (IDEAS) website, a repository for real-time and archived data from  five climate stations operated by  UCSB. Three stations are within the UC Natural Reserve System, a network of 39 wildland sites across the state managed for research and teaching: one is located at Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve, and two are at Sedgwick Reserve. The other climate stations are Painted Cave; Airstrip and Lisque Creek; and Mission Canyon, a private station whose data is hosted by IDEAS.

Students describing a sample plot along a transect at Coal Oil Point for their Measuring the Environment class. Image credit: Dar Roberts
Students describing a sample plot along a transect at Coal Oil Point for their Measuring the Environment class. Image credit: Dar Roberts

“I’m very proud of our site,” said geography department chair Dar Roberts, who teaches one of several undergraduate classes that use the IDEAS website. “It’s an educational site designed for easy understanding. Students use it to learn how the physical environment operates by contrasting very different settings. The idea is that the students do projects and link changes in the environment to plant responses.”

Because the stations are located in different habitats, students find it useful to contrast data from, say, coastal Coal Oil Point with an interior site like Airstrip. “I collect leaf samples from the Santa Barbara area and Sedgwick Reserve relatively close to some of the monitoring stations,” said Susan Meerdink, a graduate student and teaching assistant in UCSB’s Department of Geography. “When looking at the foliar chemistry and biophysical properties of the leaves, I find it is useful to know what the environment was doing at the time of collection,” she continued. “For example, if the water content in the leaves is low it might be explained by some environmental properties, such as soil water content, measured by the stations. Having the IDEAS dataset can be useful in explaining deviations in my leaf dataset especially when analyzing seasonal changes.”

The Measuring the Environment class at  Segdwick Reserve, April 2011. Image credit: Dar Roberts
The Measuring the Environment class at Segdwick Reserve, April 2011. Image credit: Dar Roberts

“I like using real data from the UCSB climate monitoring systems because I can see how data values relate to the real world with my own eyes,” said Brittany Gale, an undergraduate student who took Robert’s Measuring the Environment class. “The data becomes more relatable and meaningful.”

According to Roberts, a key component for studying geographical phenomenon remotely is the webcam, although he says the equipment is difficult to keep online. But he believes their importance outweighs their tricky maintenance.

“Webcams are becoming major research tools and there’s a huge amount that can be done with them, he said. “We contribute our data to the Phenocam site nationally. This is really going to be the tool that allows us to quantify phenology, because there are a lot of plant-derived metrics of phenology — the study of how periodic plant and animal lifecycles are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate — that can be obtained only via webcam.

“For instance, it’s difficult to know whether the plants have leaves or not unless you’re actually taking an image of the plant canopies,” Roberts added. “And if you want to know if plants are dropping their leaves earlier every year, again it takes a webcam or something like litter traps to determine that. I think webcams are more interesting for students because they are more visual.”

The NRS Climate Monitoring Network includes 26 stations in different habitats across California.
The NRS Climate Monitoring Network includes 26 stations in different habitats across California.

Now students also have access to data from 23 other climate monitoring stations in the UC Natural Reserve System (NRS), including four overseen by UCSB: Santa Cruz Island Reserve, Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino Reserve, Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory and Sedgwick Reserve. This newly completed statewide network delivers slightly different data than the climate monitoring stations run by UCSB’s Department of Geography, but according to Roberts, it offers increased diversity and more variability of climate.

“The consistency of data across the NRS is important,” Roberts said. “From a teaching point of view, utilizing these data could make for a very interesting class. Imagine being able to ask questions about the entire state. The NRS climate monitoring network could engender a powerful teaching model. And because these are UC reserves, you could even design field trips or a summer course built around visiting these sites. Students could do standard quantitative ecological measures at each site, then compare sites and start asking questions about the differences between them.”

While the geography department’s five sites offer some wonderful contrasts, adding in NRS sites will give students more opportunities to contrast vastly different habitats. But even with only seven years of data from the department’s sites—the NRS sites only go back about three years—Roberts said he and his students have already made some intriguing observations.

“The species we saw at the Airstrip in Sedgwick were completely different than two years ago and a lot of it was because of the really bizarre rainfall,” he said. “We got no rain in January and it was really warm and so it was a completely different species mix. Oftentimes, the species you see are going to change from one year to the next in some of these grassland sites depending on the rainfall and temperature.”

According to Roberts, learning from real data is incredibly important, as is having students do active research projects. “We’re being flooded with vast amounts of data from satellites, from weather stations, you name it, and it requires a different way of formulating research questions,” he said. Such questions teach lessons in climate change that can be learned only firsthand.

“Real data made the learning process much more tangible,” said undergraduate Ryan Fallgatter, who has taken two geography classes that have used IDEAS data. “Because the data was coming from right here, it was much less abstract and much more meaningful. We had actual numbers and could do a real analysis of what we felt but couldn’t quite articulate.”

The IDEAS website was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement program and by UCSB’s Department of Instructional Development.